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#348 – ICYMI from 2008 – The Future of Foundations

August 14th, 2019

Richard Marker

In reviewing posts from the earliest days of this blog, I came upon this piece from January 2008. I invite readers to decide how accurate I was – or wasn’t – 11 1/2 years ago.

This entry is in response to a request from Trista Harris of “new voices in philanthropy” to address this issue. It is also cross referenced on their blog.

In addressing the future of “philanthropic foundations” one is tempted to recall the most quoted generalization about foundations: “you’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation.” While still true for some, it is frankly not as true as foundation folks used to believe. Fads in philanthropy and herd mentality are as evident in our world as in any other. Therefore a few generalizations:
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#347 The ICYMI Series: Do You Want to Work in a Foundation

August 13th, 2019

Richard Marker

Originally posted on 31 May 2011; slightly revised. Over the years, it has been one of the most read and popular posts and most of it is still quite applicable today.

When this post was first written, it was during my 11th year teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals in special university offerings. This post was one of a series of reflections on a decade of teaching funders at the oldest and most comprehensive university program of its kind. Sadly, NYU’s Academy for Funder Education no longer exists. Happily, UPenn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy

The very first course I taught was one of the first three offered by NYU’s Center for Philanthropy, and was intended to introduce fundraisers to the other side of the table. It was entitled “Do you want to work in a foundation?” At the time I was still heading a now closed foundation and was able to host the entire course at the elegant offices of that foundation.

Much to the surprise of the then new NYU Center [now closed], a large percentage of the attendees were already working in a foundation and were anxious to build a knowledge base. In subsequent articles and postings, I will expand on what we teach, why, how it has developed over the past decade, and more. However, here, I would like to return to that very first question.

Interestingly enough, that question was quite prescient – albeit in an unintended way… it is in fact a question I am asked, one way or another, on a regular basis. After all, what could be better than giving money away? Surely it must be better to give money than to raise it. What follows are some of the responses I give during these “informational interview” type meetings.

A. Are you temperamentally suited to do this work? This seems like a strange question but many people have unrealistic expectations about what giving money away entails:

Are you prepared to say “no” much more than you can ever say “yes?” Any funder, volunteer or professional, is well aware that one has to reject a very high percentage of requests. [That is true for all of us, but the difference between an individual simply discarding all of the unsolicited fundraising requests and an institutional funder is that many of those requests are consistent with the funder’s stated mission and part of our job. There are simply too many.] This, as most funders will tell you, is much harder and more demanding than it may appear.

Are you prepared to be a walking dollar sign? Once one is identified as being a funder or a gatekeeper, it is absolutely guaranteed that every social event will become an opportunity for a veiled solicitation. Years ago, the day that it was announced that I was going to head a foundation, Mirele and I were at a reception. On the way home, she said, “we had better learn not to become cynical.” All evening people lobbied her to lobby me for their pet projects. I can assure you that to this day, as soon as someone finds out what I do, I am solicited. It may be the first or third paragraph, but it is absolutely predictable that it will happen. One has to have the temperament and judgment to know who is a friend and who is an opportunist [albeit with the very best intentions].

Are you prepared to have someone else take the bow for your success? If you are a responsible foundation professional, your job is to enable someone or some organization do what you are funding. They may thank you, but the credit for the success of the project quite properly should be theirs. Is your ego sufficiently in check so that all of your hard work can be someone else’s reward? If one is used to being the programmer or executive of a non-profit, it is quite an adjustment to assume a supporting cast role [important but still supporting.]

Are you prepared to have almost no measurable way to determine if you are dong a good job? After all, a fundraiser knows that more money was raised or more donors gave. But a foundation professional has little say in how much is given in total each year. And the number of grants given is hardly a measure of the effectiveness of the foundation’s strategy. Ironically, at a time when funders are looking for outcome measures from their grantees, it is at least as difficult to measure the success of a program officer’s work. If you get your satisfaction by meeting or exceeding objective measures, you aren’t likely to find the work of grantmaking to be as gratifying.

Are you comfortable with spending a lot of time doing office work? Much of the work of professional grantmaking involves reading proposals, checking out the non profit, writing up board and staff summaries, and keeping current with the fields in which funding takes place. Only a small percentage is “out there”.

B. These questions are not to discourage but to add a bit of reality to what is often a too romanticized career. If though, you feel that these questions still leave you excited, there are some additional considerations.

Do you need to work? If you do, planning a career working for a foundation is not a statistically reliable career plan. There are simply too few jobs. But of course they do exist. As this list will show, it is advisable to think more generically than simply looking at traditional private and independent foundations.

The large foundations typically hire those with content expertise, and assume that they will send their staff to our courses, or teach how to be a funder in-house. Very rarely will they look to hire philanthropy generalists. If you want to work in the big-name foundations, the best way is to make sure that your professional and academic training are in line with their giving priorities. Medium and smaller foundations are more likely to hire a generalist, but realistically, only rarely do these positions get posted.

There are many other opportunities to use these generic skills. Big umbrella charities [e.g., United Way, Catholic Charities, Jewish Federations, American Cancer Society, Donor Advised Funds, etc.] all need allocation specialists whose job is quite similar to a foundation program officer. Once the money is raised, these professionals play a crucial role in the effectiveness of these large and well-established organizations.

State and municipal entities have grants programs in arts, humanities, public affairs, etc. which also call for similar skills. [When this was first written, this was more true than today.]

There are a growing number of outsource firms and consulting firms which provide grants management and leadership for funders. Some are full service, others niche players. The skills and competencies which are called for are much the same as a foundation officer, but one step removed.

C. While no one can guarantee a grantmaking position, there are steps one can take to enhance one’s competitive position:

If you are not in the sector, it is very useful to serve on a non-profit board to learn something about the way decisions are made.

Attend public lectures about trends in philanthropy so that one can learn the terms and categories of the field. This is not simply a matter of learning the lingo; it is also demonstrates that the way in which funders approach questions may be quite different than the way other professions do.

Take courses. This recommendation may sound self-serving, but if one’s professional background is close and one’s experience is relevant, taking courses can help round out one’s competitiveness [to say nothing of adding crucial knowledge].

Network. There is no better way to get on short lists of candidates, especially for small to medium sized foundations, than to hear of positions through networking. [Please remember that all the networking in the world won’t help if you don’t have other credentials or relevant experience.]

Win the lottery. The only guaranteed way that you can work in grantmaking is to have your own money.

Is this all sobering? It is supposed to be since so many of those with whom I meet have less than realistic understandings of what they would do all day as full time funders.

Having said that, being a funder, professional or volunteer, can be one of the most gratifying ways in which one can spend one’s life. One can indeed make a difference, usually in small yet meaningful ways, occasionally in larger and influential ways. And one can take pleasure in knowing that, every day, one is helping to shape the character and values of our society. What can be better than that!

#346 – Sightseeing to Zeitgeist: Philanthropy’s 21st Century Journey

August 8th, 2019

Richard Marker

If one reads some mailings from our field, from some of our grantees, and from all too many wealth advisors, one might think that philanthropy was and is a byproduct of the US tax system. It wasn’t and isn’t.

It is not even an American invention, as any scholar of religion or ancient history or anthropology can attest. There is no known society that hasn’t had some form of philanthropy or charity or voluntarism, and, for hundreds of years, much of this has been done in structured ways.

But it is true that in America there has been a long-time fascination with the giving history, practices, ethics, and lifestyles of the very wealthy. Their names and the recipients of their largesse with which their names are associated are the stories of legend and fascination. The quirks and foibles and philanthropic aspirations of the Astors or Carnegies or Rockefellers or Fricks or Rosenwalds – or more recently of the Gates or Buffets or Helmsleys or Adelsons or Kochs or Schwartzman or Bloomberg or the Chen Zuckerbergs captivate the attention of many of the remaining 99.5% of society. Their large gifts inspire admiration or anger or jealousy or awe – sometimes all at once.

If one isn’t careful, one may think that these stories are the story of philanthropy in America. But they aren’t. Or to put it more accurately, they are not the most important stories in American philanthropy.

After all, there have always been superrich – royalty, aristocracy, nobility, landed gentry – who controlled resources and people’s lives. One can cross the ponds on either of our shores to see that. [Let me be clear that I am not a fan of the unconscionable divide between the ultra-high net worth beneficiaries of an unjust system that we have in the USA, only that such wealthy people have existed in many places for a long time.] Indeed, what distinguishes American philanthropy is the willingness of the average person to give of his or her own means. The institutions of philanthropy, on the whole, are reflections of that willingness.

If one looks at the American system, voluntarism was the way in which fire departments were developed. Libraries were early attempts to democratize literacy – funded by voluntary contributions. Hospitals, certainly those that existed before the last century, were almost universally begun and supported by faith based or ethnic defined populations, not by taxes or insurance. Even education in general is still not perceived by many as essentially an obligation of the society [read “government”] – leading to massive personal debts for higher education and the controversial charter school movement for the El-Hi levels. But the policy implications of those realities were not typically front-page stories but relegated to academia or field of interest groups.

Therefore, while philanthropy infuses everyday life, for most people it has meant voyeuristic sightseeing of the lifestyles and largesse of the very rich and powerful. They distinguished it from their charitable giving at Church or rent parties or little tin charity boxes at the corner store.

Something has changed and it is important, I think, to talk about those changes and their implications.

1. Unintentional to intentional. As a rule, it is fair to state that philanthropic behavior, until this century, was the unintended consequence of public policy. To take only one example, the safety net of social security permitted funders to, implicitly, feel that there is no requirement that personal giving is the only place at-risk populations can turn. It meant that a funder might well choose to redirect his or her giving to other causes of more personal interest. Another example is the almost universal dependence of public schools on private funding for their arts or cultural activities or class trips. In other words, municipalities no longer feel the need to build in funding for these activities. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that those municipalities with wealthier parents and alumni are likely to provide more co-curricular opportunities than those in poorer areas.

That began to change incrementally during the time when taxes became a dirty word, but the intentionality became very overt during the Bush-Cheney presidency. For one example, after the disastrous and deadly Hurricane Katrina, the first response was not government mobilization but rather the mobilization of Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton to go raise private funds. The tragedy of that approach has been well documented, but for our purposes, it was an important statement about that administration’s view about which sector had what responsibility.
Since then, the role of philanthropy has been a part of every policy and budget decision on the federal, state, regional and local level. It serves to give philanthropy too much power, and, ironically ,far too much responsibility.

2. The democratization or, perhaps more accurately, the anarchization of philanthropy. One can be stopped on the street, sitting at dinner, opening the mail, watching late-night tv and sure enough we’ll be solicited. And because of how easy it is to start fundraising campaigns or to quickly put up websites, many people find it desirable to give directly, and seemingly, without overhead.

Some of this is very welcome. Giving Tuesday has institutionalized on-line giving and has had a huge impact around the world. A thoughtful individual funder can utilize readily available info from Guidestar [now Candid] or many other accessible and free sites. Doing so may or may not lead to wise giving but is likely to reduce the chance of being scammed. And for those with shallow pockets, it can be very gratifying to support a classroom outing in the US or a village seamstress in Africa rather than have those limited funds go through the purported bureaucracies of intermediaries. Of course, there are scams, there are scandals, and there are predators so the disadvantages of anarchized philanthropy is that it may be hard to be sure that one’s money is going where it is promised especially for those who haven’t yet been taught about how to do it best.

Nevertheless, we are still at the early stages of this technology and the systems to support it and it isn’t going away. It is a game changer, empowering all to make the kinds of direct decisions previously reserved for the few.

3. The concentration of wealth, the sheer size of some gifts, the growth of private/public funds under DAFs all have forced the issue of equitability and equity onto the table. Aside from the tax issues referred to above in 1, there are issues of altruistic folks of privilege determining what is best or irrelevant for those who have less and also of the legitimacy of wealthy folks using their foundations and private giving to distort public policy. There has been a slew of recent book-length commentaries on this issue. Their attitudes range from the essential fallacy of a system that depends on voluntary giving to an attempt to rebalance what philanthropy can, legitimately, be expected to do. What is relevant to us at this time in history is not that there are authors exploring and challenging philanthropic behavior – rather that those authors and those books are getting attention beyond our highly gilded sector and getting read widely. [In this piece, I am not addressing some of my own opinions on this since I have done so in numerous other opinion pieces and in public talks elsewhere.]

4. The emergence of “philanthropy adjacent” approaches available to many. This emerges out of a convergence of some interrelated but separate trends. Here too, I am not necessarily endorsing the underlying thinking behind some of these trends, only articulating them:

a. One emerges from an underlying skepticism toward the NFP sector model’s ability to succeed. This approach argues that without a motivation for personal gain, the creativity and long-term commitment to make real change can never be sustained. Therefore, the real solution to long term societal challenges is to develop alternative models where the owner or investor can “do well by doing good.”

b. A corollary of that is the recognition that most ngo/nfp organizations can never have access to the capital necessary to reach the scale to have the impact an “investor” would demand – that traditional “donors” might not. For-profit business, even when B-corps or ESG approved, have access to capital markets that the nfp/ngo sector doesn’t.

c. Foundation and other funders come at this from a somewhat different direction. Why, they ask, should only our philanthropic giving reflect our values? If we care about smoking or societal equity or the environment or food insecurity, we should find ways of aligning what we do with our investment money with the same underlying values that we apply to our giving. Impact investing and values screens are increasingly viewed as mainstream.

d. As many of the major investment firms offer some “values based” funds available through their retirement menu, the average investor now has options previously available only to those with deep bench investment advisors.

5. Systemic thinking has forced funders and policy makers to recognize the interconnectedness of so many elements of what must be fixed. A program grant to a local organization may be very useful but it is highly unlikely to get to the source of the problem. Government SNAP programming is by far the most efficient way to address food insecurity in the USA, but it cannot, alone, eliminate the continuing need. Voluntary clean up of a river will be satisfying but unless there are enforced policies about what is dumped into that river, edible fish are unlikely to return.

Understanding of systemic issues requires an ideological and political commitment to some forms of “intersectionality”. Opinions diverge about what that should mean. For some, the word implies a mandate to think broadly about how all decisions are interconnected. For some others, it means “with us or agin’ us.”

Globalism is another component of the systemic. Despite some misguided political voices these days, there is no such thing as a fully independent national economy or polity, and certainly no border protections from environmental degradation. Those in the philanthropy world who are committed to addressing the “systemic” need inevitably to address the “global.”

6. If philanthropy has moved into society’s zeitgeist, there is a danger that there will be two very problematic long-term responses:

a. That the visibility of foundations and other large giving will mislead people to think that private philanthropy can ever adequately replace public responsibility. As many $Bs are given buy very generous citizens, those dollars are a mere percentage of what an adequate tax/public system should and can provide. In an anti-government era, this would be disastrous since having human services depend fully on voluntarism would condemn millions to hunger and illiteracy and more.

b. That the attention to private philanthropy will lead to severe restrictions on it. The “closing of civil society” seen in so many places around the world, including the USA, might limit all citizens from exercising advocacy and free speech rights we should still cherish. Philanthropy should indeed be subject to a certain public interest transparency, but we should work very had to make sure that independent decision making is not restricted along the way.

Some have argued that we are living in the second Golden Age of Philanthropy. If one argues only from the perspective of UHNW giving, that is true. But in many ways, as the focus of philanthropy moves from aspirational voyeurism to more normal behavior and attention of the many, I would argue that such a characterization misses the point of how radically these changes are . I use the word Zeitgeist to suggest that philanthropy is one of the defining topics of our era in ways never imagined before.

#345 Accountability Begins… Our National Shame

July 8th, 2019

Richard Marker

An alert to those who only read my posts for their thoughts on philanthropy. This is another one that deals with politics. If others in the philanthropy world may feel that it leads to increased advocacy, so be it.

Many of you know that one of my life changing experiences was having been in Berlin on 9 November 1989, known widely as the day the Wall came down. I have written about my thoughts on that day in the past; this piece is inspired by the larger context of my visit to Germany that ended on that date.

1989 was the second generation after WWII. Sadly there are deniers today who choose to not believe the facts of the German depravity and culpability that led to the Holocaust of 6 million Jews, and 5 million others, but the Germans knew then [and still do!] that it was not hyperbole, and represented national shame, embarrassment, and an ineradicable blot on their place in history.

My visit was one of many that the then West German government sponsored to demonstrate that they did not ignore this shame and were trying, in the most institutional ways that they could, to internalize their own commitment to “never again.” Our small group were young-ish leaders in the Jewish world of North America. The 3 weeks were exhausting and powerful.

There was no attempt to sugarcoat German history or to claim that it was unrelated to their present. Thus we saw remnants of the Holocaust institutions, the earliest concentration camps and preliminary gas chambers, the memorials, the archives of the shocking official propaganda developed to shape German opinion. And much more.

Because 1989 was just beyond the 50-year anniversary of the Kristallnacht Pogroms, there were exhibits in libraries, schools, town centers, and elsewhere. We saw how grandchildren confronted their grandparents, how people outed themselves as having Jewish relatives that they denied or rejected to protect themselves. Two generations were enough time for people with memory to come clean, and for those who had not yet been born to learn what their unchosen legacy was all about.

The trip, though, was not only about the Holocaust and German culpability. It was very much about how a nation was re-thinking itself, rebuilding itself, contemplating a new world order, and trying to achieve the delicate balance between a history of German excellence in arts, science, literature, education, music, and more – with this abysmal period. [We also visited places that are chapter headings in Jewish thought over a thousand-year period, but that is for another article.]

We learned that German education mandates Holocaust education and even site visits to “camps.” In those days, there were still enough survivors to have presentations in every school by those who could relate their painful and horrific memories.

We also learned, and we are now getting to the essential point of this essay, that soldiers were taught that they must resist immoral, inhumane orders. Just because something is ordered doesn’t mean one should obey, and just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. The military system taught every single soldier of these distinctions. After all, they knew, it wasn’t only a depraved despotic leader that caused these deaths and the suffering of the Shoah, but it could only happen because of those who decided to follow those orders. I am not an expert on military training or how this is or isn’t taught elsewhere in the world, but I confess that I was profoundly moved by a nation that taught its own civil disobedience as the highest form of civic duty.

It is unnecessary to point out the immoral, dishonest, questionably legal actions of the person occupying the seat of the presidency of the United States today. He is certainly not the first despot in history – and sadly he won’t be the last. But we do need to take stock of what allows so many of our fellow citizens to feel that this immorality and dishonesty doesn’t matter. And we do need to take stock of what allows people, wearing uniforms and acting in the name of this country, to do despicable things that we hope they know are wrong.

After WWII we learned that “just following orders” is not a sufficient alibi when ordered to do immoral and inhumane acts. International law has been enacted to insist on that. But what have we not done in the US education system – of the military or of ICE or the police or even of too many everyday citizens – that they feel free to act in such ways or feel supportive of them? It is beneath contempt and brings a blot on the identity of all of us who call ourselves American who believe in the rule of moral law and justice.

And let’s be clear: the issue isn’t whether the correct descriptions of the places where this insanity is carried out are “concentration camps” or “detention camps” or any other nomenclature. That argument is merely a political obfuscation of the terrible and unacceptable actions taking place.

I have no doubt that one day our country, too, will be held accountable in very real ways. I suspect we too will learn, far too late, what West Germany needed to learn in the 50’s, that we prevent immoral behavior by teaching its unacceptability at every level of society. That doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be despotic leaders, but it diminishes the likelihood that their minions will feel empowered to follow inhumane orders for political purposes.

Let us hope.

#344 Some Musings about Leadership – Perhaps a bit overdue

July 7th, 2019

Richard Marker

A colleague recently expressed surprise that I had not submitted a response to an RFP for leadership training for a foundation board that was posted prominently by a national philanthropy organization. I demurred saying that I really am not an expert on “leadership.” The colleague’s response was pretty strong: “Are you kidding? Of course you are” and went on to remind me of my own career path.

My professional world over the last quarter century has been fully in the area of grantmaking, funder education, and advising funders and families about how to make informed, ethical, and wise decisions. But the colleague reminded me that I have a long history of volunteer leadership roles, and professional work advising and teaching foundation leadership around the world, and senior executive and supervisory roles. I acknowledged that I had both relevant experience and some well-developed thoughts about leadership.

For what it is worth, I calculated that, over the course of my career, I have served on at least 60 boards and chaired 12. [It is a role I relish and would be delighted to join additional foundation boards.] Moreover, when I was an executive, I supervised dozens of professionals and organizations around the world. While I am in the autumn of my career and these roles have been reduced, there are some learnings that have emerged along the way – a few of which may be worth sharing here.

1. I learned early on that there are 2 types of leadership – “ascribed” and “earned.” The former emerges out of “position” – and is often top down; the latter is what others attribute to you independent of the formal “position.” One would like to think that one can hold both roles simultaneously, but it doesn’t automatically follow and isn’t easy.

2. Being CEO or a professional supervisor carries a certain authority. Indeed, one has that ascribed position because there is assumed confidence that one can lead a business, organization, or foundation or some part of one. When one does this well, the staff, board, other stakeholders, and peers all respect the culture, style, and vision of the leader. This confidence must be earned. Without it, a leader has power but only ambivalent or reluctant followers or employees.

3. The empowerment and enfranchisement of others is typically the most effective long-term way to earn that respect. Top-down exercise of power or charismatic style may work for a while, but it rarely inspires genuine long-term loyalty or deep-seated respect. And they certainly do not cultivate future leadership and decision making, indispensable attributes for the long-term viability of any business or organization. [If you see me, ask me about my sobering discovery, very early in my career, about the flaws of charismatic leadership.]

4. The courage to stand for values in the face of organizational challenges is often a measure of how deeply a leader is committed to earning that role. Organizational change matters, and is always disruptive, but when those changes are only because it may be popular or because a few more powerful folks demand it, it may be expeditious but rarely efficacious. [A personal note: Much to my real surprise, in recent months several people told me that what they remember most about my various leadership roles – both as a professional and as a volunteer leader – were the times I stood fast on principle, or told “truth to power” – even when it was unpopular or at professionally cost/risk. Those anecdotes have touched me deeply.]

5. If having a moral compass matters a lot, leadership also requires a profound empathy. That empathy needs to be manifest to those whom one leads. In these days of attention to staff retention and cultivation, perhaps two very concrete examples [of many techniques I used] will illustrate:

a. Career Pathing: When I was a CEO or supervisory executive, I offered to meet with every professional every year to help update their resumes. Why? Well, for one, virtually every professional thinks about his/her next career step; I know I did. Why should I begrudge that ambition in others? No, I didn’t want those colleagues to leave but even more I didn’t want them sneaking around thinking they were disloyal. An unintended consequence was that I often learned that many professionals were 80-90% satisfied but one element of their job was really bothering them. By switching that one assignment with another professional with a different set of priorities, both could be more gratified in their work, and remain longer than they originally intended.

b. Professional Development: In the non-profit sphere, personnel is almost always the largest budget line. So, if there are budget pressures, that is the first place to turn. One line that always seemed vulnerable was the one for professional development. Yet I knew that it was invaluable to the long-term strength of any organization as well as to the growth of individuals within it. Therefore, working with board leadership, we moved that item from being a separate budget line to an assured personnel benefit – in the same category as health benefits. It demonstrated our commitment to how important this was and protected it from budget cutters who saw conferences and staff training as a dispensable luxury item.

6. Effective leadership requires another balancing act as well: keeping an eye on the long term while understanding the daily demands on all elements of one’s organization or business. A visionary who only sees the future may appear charismatic but can often undercut those who need to do the work. One who is only committed to the daily organizational needs may be an outstanding Operating Officer, but rarely can lead the organization into the vagaries and potentialities of the future. This combination of skills and attributes is rarely easy, but, when achieved, it is the mark of outstanding and exemplary leadership.

7. Culture is the grout that holds the organizational edifice together. For example, espousing empowerment and then overruling decisions is likely to inspire only safe behaviors and discourage risk taking. Bragging about staff quality and then always hiring from outside for key positions erodes loyalty and casts doubt on your sincerity. Endorsing the need for equity yet continuing to pay differential salaries to women or minorities is suspect at best. When there is a discrepancy in any of these areas, there is an erosion of “earned” leadership that not only weakens the leader but takes a toll on the business or organization as well.

It is trite to say that leadership is both an art and a science. Typically, it is hard not because of our intentions but because of our blind spots – every single one of us has them.

As we look around the world today, we find a resurgence of a destructive, non-empathetic, self-satisfying leadership, and not only here in the USA. Whether because of blind spots or megalomania, they are the wrong kinds of leaders for long term societal thriving, and a counterproductive paradigm of good leadership. Someday, soon I hope, they will be replaced.

In the meantime, whether on the national, local, or organizational level, I believe that leadership informed by these insights learned over 5 decades may help advise the next generations of leaders in every sector.

#343 – Dancing on the Head of a Pin or the Edge of a Sword

July 3rd, 2019

Richard Marker

This post is not about philanthropy; those who subscribe only for our commentary on philanthropy topics may want to take a pass. But the subject matter in this post is timely, so it might be worth a read anyway.

When I was an academic, and then again as a quondam theologian, the discourse often was admired or denigrated as a calculation of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When I left those worlds, I discovered that problem solving mattered more. I was struck by that dialectic last week when I attended a modestly historic event in Paris in international interreligious relations.

The context: In a volunteer capacity, I have been involved in inter-group and inter-religious matters for my entire adult life. Over the last 2 decades, most of those involvements have been on the international level – having had the honor of serving several elected leadership roles.

One of those chair-ships was of the Board of World Religious Leaders, a biennial think tank of leaders from 6 world religions, including some whose names you would certainly recognize. [When elected, I pointed out that all the rest were leaders of followers; I was just a leader of leaders.] That role has taken me to many countries and led to extraordinary friendships with remarkable individuals whose knowledge, passion, and transcendent empathy underscore the universality of religion, even while affirming the uniqueness of their/our own.

This post, though, emerges from another past chair-ship, that of a unique consortium in the Jewish world, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. For those of you who may never have heard of IJCIC, it is the official consortium representing the world Jewish community – including the major denominations and community relations organizations – to other world religious bodies such as the Vatican, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Christian Orthodoxy, and many more. It has been around since 1971.

Two decades ago, IJCIC split with one of those world bodies, the World Council of Churches. Suffice it to say that the reasons were real, but as time went on, it also became clear that it was time to see if it would be possible to get beyond that schism. Those discussions began in 2012 and continued on a behind-the-scenes level since. Last week, in Paris, I am pleased to say, the WCC and IJCIC formally reestablished our relationship. Our hope is that, even when there will be inevitable divergence of points of view, there is now a more open and solid communication to prevent that regrettable 2-decade schism from recurring.

The atmosphere surrounding our meeting is a changed world that neither Jews nor Christians can dismiss or ignore. Our topic, “The Normalization of Hatred” was not pure rhetoric. By any statistical measure, there is more anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti- Muslim behavior and speech than at any time since World War II. And as antinomian nativism surfaces dangerously throughout the world, religious leaders may not be silent, or passive.

If we cannot be silent, what words can suffice?

What emerged was a delicate balance of how to articulate the fear and vulnerability that is now a daily reality for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in so many places. Composing a communiqué that was credible and comprehensible was not easy. For example, does the word “Islamophobia” adequately convey the irrational and irresponsible hatred of Muslims or need we find an alternative way to express that? Or, has the word “antisemitism” been used so much that, in the face of a frightening surge, even in the USA, some disagree on its proper definitions? And what word should we now use to describe a hatred of Christians that see them murdered in prayer?

Our meetings last week were not characterized by disagreement between the Jewish or Christian leaders on the facts or their horrendous implications. However, there was no immediate consensus among the individual attendees about how precise our word choices need to be. Some comments reminded me of my academic years alluded to above, when precision was the only credible way to speak, when anything stated or written must be defensible against any challenge. Others were more committed to expressing our current dystopian reality in ways affirming the aspirational ideals of our respective religious traditions; our Traditions must convey a vision of a better and more inclusive future rather than surrendering to the nihilism that surrounds us. And still others felt that the most recognizable words were the most effective to the largest numbers. “Islamophobia” may be an insufficient word to describe the hatred and abundance of unacceptable hate-actions against Muslims, but it has become the most recognized statement. The definitions of antisemitism may be arguable, but there is little doubt that, by any definition, it is there, and growing, and anti-Jewish behaviors are no longer isolated.

This last group argued, persuasively, that the urgency of the moment takes precedence over academic type precision. This, despite the awareness that there has been a weaponization of this complex shorthand vocabulary by some in order to silence the voices for good and to distort the reality of the dangers we all face.

The WCC and IJCIC, dedicated ourselves not only to restoring a relationship that honors our respective traditions, but also to being assertive voices, together, to a world that needs our commitment to action more than our precision of words. Our group, wisely I think, decided that the edge of the sword poses more of a danger than counting the angels on the head of a pin can solve.

#342 – Why the Decrease in Charitable Giving need NOT be a [Major] Concern – But…

June 20th, 2019

Richard Marker

The Giving USA report confirms what everyone thought it would – giving is down, about 1.7% That is indeed real money and affirms what the non-profit advocates and philanthropy sector warned would happen with the tax changes that went into effect last year.

There are plenty of articles analyzing those numbers, and they are real. And the dollars are real. And they matter a lot to many non-profit organizations, especially smaller ones that are typically undercapitalized from the get-go. They truly need every penny.

Why, then, is the reduction in charitable giving not my [major] concern?

There have been blips in charitable giving every single time there has been any change in the tax code or tax rates. Sometimes those changes have boosted charitable giving and sometimes they have depressed it. But, over time, charitable giving seems to revert to a mean. In other words, tax changes have served to influence when something is given more than if. If one looks at a long-term giving pattern, it is far too early to know how significant the non- itemization will be for givers of modest amounts. My own prediction is that there will be a gradual return to the mean since Americans seem to have internalized giving as a normal thing to do.

But, that doesn’t mean that there are no red flags, and I believe that those red flags are far more significant than the short-term drop in giving:

1. Despite the claim of a healthy economy, middle and lower middle-class incomes have not yet come close to replacing the buying power those earners had a generation ago. Fewer have reliable health insurance, employer sponsored retirement plans, job security, and can afford college tuitions. Even incremental and long overdue wage increases don’t come close to closing that gap. The amazing thing is that voluntary charitable giving is keeping pace at all [other than by the very wealthy whose proportional wealth has skyrocketed and should be ashamed of themselves if they haven’t increased their giving as disproportionately.]

2. The deep-seated distrust of institutions is cataclysmic. Nonprofits may fare better than some other institutions, but they are not exempt from this distrust. One still hears too many people believing that non-profit people are either lazy and inefficient or that they are secretly making a profit off others’ largesse – or both. All of this distrust has profound and frightening implications for civil society as a whole. Of course, it impacts charitable giving but more so, it erodes the fragile network that allows civic engagement and community organizations to provide such an important role.

3. Even if charitable giving were to rise, it may lead us to a false sense that all would be well. It wouldn’t be. The charitable sector cannot be expected to replace public funding for health care, education, retirement, food safety, children’s nutrition – and so much more. Under the horrendous rhetoric that taxes are bad so cutting them is good, we are paying the price of taxpayers no longer paying for what we should be paying for. Until we reverse that terrible governing [or, more accurately, anti-governing] principle, and develop a more rational, fair, and responsible system of taxes that people feel are appropriate, reliance on the voluntary sector will be a fool’s mission. That is not to suggest that there will not always be a role for the voluntary sector but that this increasing reliance on voluntarism to do what an underfunded government doesn’t won’t get us out of this mess.

Taxes are a reflection of where we think public funding should be. Most of us care about more than roads and bridges [would that they were properly maintained]. And we care about more than police and fire and EMT folks [even when they sometimes need some serious equity training]. I believe that the vast majority of us care about the health of our food and our children and our air and our water and our old age…..

When we recognize that being a responsible member of any society requires that we pay our fair share for those things, and we pay for those through a fair and reasonable tax system, we can begin to return to our question of charitable deductibility and voluntary contributions. When that happens, I will be first in line.

Until then, count me among those who are advocating, as loudly and persuasively as I know how, to build a society and government that honors the needs of all with integrity and dignity.

I will continue to be an active volunteer and to put my charitable money there as well, but the shortfall in that as reported by Giving USA isn’t the grievance that anguishes me. Irresponsible, shortsighted, dystopian public policy is.

#341 Foundations Must Not Fall Into the “Partisan” Trap

June 19th, 2019

Richard Marker

As with so many of my colleagues in the philanthropy world, I have been involved in the “complete count” effort regarding next year’s USA national census. This involvement was a national attempt for our sector to help correct for historic under-counts of lower income and other marginal populations. Since those numbers have a 10-year implication for allocation of federal funding, representative apportionment, and more, this has been seen as a commitment by the philanthropy world and the organizations we support to equity and equitability. Our involvement was never understood as a partisan or political involvement, but rather a sector-wide role to do something that should have been politically neutral to support a constitutionally mandated action.

Why then did a foundation program officer demur about taking a public position on the census after a profoundly moving day bringing hundreds of local stakeholders together. Her argument: her board won’t take “partisan” positions.

The 10-year census is constitutionally mandated. It was never intended to be “political” but rather an objective tool for democracy to function at the most equitable level. And while certain populations have notoriously been undercounted, that has never been because of purposeful interventions by politicians. [I acknowledge that those undercounts may have been unintended consequences of inequitable public policy but not purposeful.] Yet in this go-round, we now know unequivocally, there has been a systematic attempt to co-opt the census process for overtly partisan purposes. As of this writing, there is still the faint hope that the Supreme Court will honor the intent and history surrounding the census and disallow the last-minute citizenship question imposed by the current administration. But the damage is done and far too many fear the government and don’t trust the data gathering. And the fact that this foundation staff person felt an implicit restriction is only one of the signs. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Some months ago, a parent of one of the victims of one of the all too many school shootings [for which the USA should be ashamed and angry] bemoaned that talking about rational gun policy has become “partisan”. He himself was a lifelong Republican, but the very fact that he tried to discuss his concerns with Republican politicians about this branded him as not one of them. He thought he was discussing policy but the party with which he had always identified has defined the very discussion as a partisan issue, and he was on the wrong side. He was furious and frustrated.

Since their inception, there has been a debate about how porous our social safety net of Social Security and Medicare should be. But let’s be clear: Social security and Medicare are mandated contracts with all American workers. Everyone has money withheld and contributed throughout their working career with the assumption that the government will honor its contract and provide what they [we] have every right to expect. Yet many in a single party now try to argue that it is not a contractual obligation at all but simply an annual gift that can be discontinued or privatized or reduced at their will. These politicians have made this a partisan matter and not a discussion of genuine ethical public policy.

Any reader, I am sure, can add to this list during this dismal era in American politics.

What are we as funders to do? Most foundations have a history of choosing to be overtly and explicitly non-partisan, often restraining from legal and legitimate advocacy since they don’t want to appear “partisan.” The danger, of course, is that as certain political forces try to make every matter of the social weal and public policy to be no more than a partisan divide, it can serve to intimidate and limit much needed public discourse on policy and civil behavior, and to silence some of the most educated and thoughtful independent voices [including but not limited to us].

Those of us in the philanthropy sphere must resist this willful usurpation strenuously. All of our work is in dialectic with public policy, and we have an obligation to help formulate public policy with a vision of an engaged and enfranchised populace. Just because one party chooses to make policy discussions “partisan” does not mean that we must yield to that. It is demagogic and violates the intent of the Constitutional system under which we operate. Sadly, it incurs a like reaction by the other major political party. When every issue is “us vs. them”, with only political winners or losers, public policy, civil society, and the very nature of what America stands for is radically harmed. The American ethos is the inevitable loser – even if a few, a very few, will win.

To be sure, there are legal limits to our role in the political process – certain lobbying is not permitted for private foundations, but much more is permitted for public charities. As a rule, though, advocacy for policy that is not related to a candidate or pending legislation is not lobbying and is permitted by all. It is not partisan to have an opinion and point of view, and the philanthropy world should be a clarion and courageous voice in the face of the purposeful “partisan” divide in this country. We must never allow our voices or those of our colleagues to be stifled. Those of us who have important leadership roles in public discourse must never feel intimidated by others’ partisanship for us to exercise our forceful, thoughtful role in the public sphere.

It is not only our right; in this misanthropic era, it is the only right thing to do.

#340 “Foundation People Aren’t Like Other People”

June 18th, 2019

Richard Marker

There I was, sitting in the waiting room at New York’s Penn Station. The person sitting next to me was on the phone discussing her work for the entire time I was there, in a decidedly non-whispery voice.

I have only an inkling what this person does, and even less about what those on the other end do. All I can report is the one line that immediately caught my attention. “You can’t let it upset you. Remember, foundation people aren’t like other people.”

You are probably not surprised that I began to listen more intently, and it became clear that she was talking about a very well-known foundation. And, interestingly, one that has made public strides to become more user friendly and equity oriented. Yet, evidently, not so much so that the invisible person on the other end could resist complaining.

All of us in our field know that saying “no” or “yes” is loaded, no matter how hard we try. I want to be very clear that I have no reason to assume that the foundation person was unreasonable, curt, demanding, officious, or any of the other pejoratives for which we are known, sometimes deservedly. So, let’s not assume that the foundation person was culpable. Nevertheless, the person I was listening to had no problem painting us all with a single brush stroke.

Is it true that we are “not like other people”? Is it true that our privileged role, by definition, makes us inscrutable to everyone else? Is our power, exercised or not, so intimidating that, even without trying, we all seem to be living in our own world?

I don’t think so and many of us spend a lot of time trying to model accessibility, honesty, candor, and support. Yet, this episode, even if anecdotal and not worthy of statistical generalizations, is one that we all need to take seriously. Especially since the well-known foundation has very publicly tried to model best behaviors, this comment cuts deep. We clearly have a lot to do.

There is much to say about issues of equity, decision making, and many of the larger systemic issues – about which we have written in the past and to which we will return in subsequent posts. But in the meantime, let’s not forget that many of us on the grantmaking and foundation side of things still have some catching up to do if we are to be models of genuine partnership, collaboration and collegiality.

One never knows what lessons one can learn simply minding one’s own business. Hearing unsolicited evaluations, and taking them to heart, isn’t a bad start.

#337 Localism need not be Isolationism: A Mandate for Philanthropy

May 26th, 2019

Richard Marker

I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t observed it on a number of recent occasions in philanthropy settings. [As readers know, I try to write these pieces so that individual funders or foundations are not easily identified, so the examples below will be, purposely, devoid of identifiable specifics. But they are real.]

In our field there has been a very healthy discussion about the best ways to use our voluntary resources, including our philanthropic dollars and leadership roles. That is always appropriate, never more so than in this misanthropic political era. None of us want those precious resources to be wasted, and most of us recognize that there are persistent systemic issues that beg our attention.

Many funders, either for reasons of habit or because they have carefully determined that it is the best for them, focus all or most of their resources locally. Place-based philanthropy is surely as old as any philanthropy, and most of us can see needs right in front of us if we choose to look. However, rarely does that local funding rise to the level of systemic solutions.

If one reads much of the current literature, one may feel that such local funding is inadequate or ill spent or simply irrelevant. It isn’t. For even if we were to determine that we know exactly how to solve huge systemic issues such as education, health care, poverty, climate change, etc., the only way that happens is if there is an on-the-ground component. People need to be healthy, not just the health care system. Children need to learn, not just school systems. People need to practice good environmental practices, not just through the EPA [when it is allowed to do its job!] That all happens to real people in real places, all of whom are, by definition, somewhere- that is local.

Let me be clear and reiterate what most of you know: I am a big believer that social and systemic change requires advocacy, big picture thinking, and a commitment to equity. Classic philanthropic giving alone won’t cut it. But I also know that it can only work through implementation, on the ground, locally.

However, what I recently discovered, to my surprise, is that many funders, yes, even some well-staffed foundations, still don’t see the relationship of their local funding to a bigger picture. They have decided to fund locally and act as if that place is a closed, self-contained system.

For one example, I recently was present when a group of funders were reviewing their reaction to a very genuine local disaster/crisis. Their compassion and generosity were beyond reproach. They did good things, their thinking was right on, and they developed some short-term very effective responses. What surprised me, though, was that they had gone through the entire process, and were about to extrapolate long term implications, without anyone in the room having heard of an organization that has already developed best practices through many disasters and has examples directly applicable to the community in question. It wasn’t my imagination, because when I mentioned that organization, everyone in the room confirmed that they hadn’t heard of it.

It was a classic example where localism had, unnecessarily, led to isolationism. It might be disappointing if a single funder had acted and thought that way, under the assumption that no one knows and understands their “place” as well as they do. But when a group of funders and foundations, some of whom were quite sizeable and staffed, acted that way, it troubled me.

Another example of this is the tendency of some affinity-defined groups to see themselves as unique. “Our… [choose one: religion, ethnicity, political history, race, gender, …] is not like others and, just as others cannot understand us, so too we need not learn from others.” I have previously written about the “with us or agin’ us” tendency of intersectionality, but here I am speaking about the tendency of some funders within these groups to mirror an isolationist tendency in their funding decisions. Why learn from or collaborate with others if we don’t feel that they can understand our uniqueness.

Lest anyone misconstrue what I am trying to say, I want to categorically affirm that there are distinct challenges to every affinity-defined group and there are indeed legitimate special interests and concerns that should be factored into all sorts of areas, including funding. At the same time, there are generic issues of decision-making and ethics and equity and systems- change that transcend those distinctions. It is not, and should not be, one or the other; understanding both the distinctive and universal at the same time is absolutely crucial.

One of the reasons I began to be an educator of funders in 2000 was my impatience with the field’s mantra at the time: “You’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation” – usually stated with a self-satisfied chuckle. One doesn’t hear that very often anymore because the world has changed: There are more affinity groups. There are more on-line resources. There have been more articles in the mainstream media about our field. And there are more educational opportunities. Even those who may choose to fund locally or idiosyncratically are fully aware that there is a field, there are substantive things to know. [I am not so naïve to think that everyone joins those groups or takes those courses, only that working in isolation is now a choice, not a default.]

There is, as well, an implicit and important mandate for local or place-based or affinity-defined funders to take the larger picture seriously. Just as it is impossible to actualize systemic change in the abstract, so too it is impossible for those funders committed to systemic change to make good funding decisions if they don’t fully see how those decisions work- or don’t. Place based funders hold vital insights and actionable data that needs to feed into the policy and systems conversations. Some few situations may very well prove to be too idiosyncratic to be useful, but most local funding situations are reflective of larger challenges. How local funders answer those questions of learnings, provide information on what worked and didn’t, and participate in a dynamic dialectic on those issues can make the difference between moving toward real change vs another “big bet” gone sour.

In other words, funder isolation is counterproductive in both directions; place-based and affinity-defined funders can – and many do – learn from emerging practices and systems thinking; and big picture funders can – and many do – learn from those on the ground.

Place-based and affinity-defined funding will always have a place. Systems funders do as well. Neither should work in isolation even if they choose to fund only within their sphere of commitment.

Good philanthropy requires no less.